A Day in the Court of the Emperor of Mali

Ibn Battuta_1
An illustration from Jules Verne’s book “Découverte de la terre” (“Discovery of the Earth”) drawn by Léon Benett. Ibn Battuta (1304-68/69) was a Moroccan Berber scholar and traveler

The Berber scholar and historian Abu Abdullah Ibn Battuta (commonly known in English as Ibn Battuta) is known as the most prolific and famous traveler of the middle ages. Born in Morocco in 1304, descending from a family of Islamic legal scholars (qadis) in Tangier, Ibn Battuta covered over 73,000 miles in 3 decades spanning 3 continents, Africa, Europe, and Asia. On one such travel, he visited the great Empire of Mali, and through his notes, we know what an audience with the Emperor Mansa Sulayman of Mali looked like. Travel to 1351 and enjoy a day in the court of the Emperor of one of the greatest empires in Africa, the Mali Empire, through the eyes of Ibn Battuta!


Mali Empire (Wikipedia)

On certain days the sultan holds audiences in the palace yard, where there is a platform under a tree, with three steps; this they call the “pempi.” It is carpeted with silk and has cushions placed on it. [Over it] is raised the umbrella, which is a sort of pavilion made of silk, surmounted by a bird in gold, about the size of a falcon. The sultan comes out of a door in a corner of the palace, carrying a bow in his hand and a quiver on his back. On his head he has a golden skull-cap, bound with a gold band which has narrow ends shaped like knives, more than a span in length. His usual dress is a velvety red tunic, made of the European fabrics called “mut’anfas.” The sultan is preceded by his musicians, who carry gold and silver guimbris [two-stringed guitars], and behind him come three hundred armed slaves [possibly servants]. He walks in a leisurely fashion, affecting a very slow movement, and even stops from time to time. On reaching the pempi he stops and looks round the assembly, then ascends it in the sedate manner of a preacher ascending a mosque-pulpit. As he takes his seat the drums, trumpets, and bugles are sounded. Three slaves go out at a run to summon the sovereign’s deputy and the military commanders, who enter and sit down. Two saddled and bridled horses are brought, along with two goats, which they hold to serve as a protection against the evil eye. Dugha stands at the gate and the rest of the people remain in the street, under the trees.

Sometimes one of them stands up before him and recalls his deeds in the sultan’s service, saying, “I did so-and-so on such a day,” or, “I killed so-and-so on such a day.” Those who have knowledge of this confirm his words, which they do by plucking the cord of the bow and releasing it [with a twang], just as an archer does when shooting an arrow. If the sultan says, “Truly spoken,” or thanks him, he removes his clothes and “dusts.” That is their idea of good manners.